When I first got clean and sober I was obsessed with knowing (or finding out) the most efficient strategy for staying clean and sober. I wanted to know the short cuts. I wanted to know what it all boiled down to.
And it was frustrating because no one could give me a straight answer. This is because there was no straight answer. And there really was no shortcut either. No one could say to me “Oh, just ignore most of what they are telling you, and focus on this one critical aspect of recovery.” That is what I was looking for because that is how most things in my life had worked in the past. But nobody could tell me anything like that. The closest thing to a revelation was “just keep going to meetings.” So for a while that is exactly what I did.
Fast forward 12+ years into my recovery to where I am today. Now I can look back and see just how far I have come, and exactly what strategies were helpful to me and which ones were not.
The nice thing about recovery is that you don’t have to adopt anything that doesn’t really fit your personality. Of course, if nothing is keeping you sober then you may want to open your mind a bit more to try new things. But ultimately the path in recovery requires experimentation. You take suggestions, try new things, and you keep doing the things which seem to help you.
The concepts themselves are fundamental in most cases (such as surrender). How you implement the concepts will be of critical importance. This is why you need to get feedback and talk with others in recovery.
The top strategies that have made a huge impact on my own recovery are:
4) Massive action.
5) Holistic health.
6) Personal growth.
Massive disruption for the win!
I speak often of disruption.
This is a fundamental building block of recovery. Nearly everyone who gets clean and sober has to use some form of disruption in order to break free.
Alcoholism and drug addiction are a cycle. The individual is trapped in this cycle and cannot break free of it using their own devices. They have tried numerous times and failed. This is what defines addiction.
So disruption is needed. If you get arrested and find yourself locked up in jail, that is a form of disruption. If you voluntarily go into a drug or alcohol treatment center, that is another form of disruption.
Doing so disrupts the pattern of abuse because you are entering a controlled environment. Hence, while you are in treatment no drug or alcohol abuse can occur. This is a simple but important concept.
A classic example of denial is when an alcoholic is completely out of control with their drinking and they agree to get help and go to counseling. Or they agree to go to AA meetings. This is a total mismatch and the alcoholic knows it. They need way more disruption in their life in order to get the help that they really need. Going to outpatient or meetings or counseling is not the right solution for them. They need more help than that because they are hopelessly trapped in a pattern. They need a bigger form of disruption.
If someone is struggling with addiction or alcoholism then it is probably the case that they should seek out a massive amount of disruption. If there is any doubt, more disruption is generally better. I personally went to long term treatment for 20 months and it was the best decision I ever made. The lesson here is this: If doing less disruptive strategies is not working well for you, try increasing the level of disruption (more treatment).
Fully immersing yourself into a recovery program
One of the strategies that I immediately recognized in early recovery (but that many people found difficult to put into words) was the concept of immersion. You might also say that this had to do with “dedication” to a recovery program.
There were some people in recovery who were dabbling, and there were others who were dead serious about it.
Now consider the numbers: most people in early recovery relapse. Something like 90 percent in the first year or so (of everyone who tries to get sober).
Guess which people are the ones who stay sober? The people who are fully immersing themselves in recovery and doing whatever they can in order to learn new things and “get” the program.
I knew from two previous attempts at recovery that you cannot just casually try to stay sober and expect to get results. I knew for a fact that this would not work. So I had to become willing to dedicate my entire life to recovery. This is really the answer to the question of “how hard do I have to try in recovery?” The answer is: You must dedicate your life to sobriety. You have to fight for it like your life depends on it (because it does!).
When I worked in a residential treatment facility for a few years I realized that most people who come into the program are not yet at this level of willingness. This can be traced back to a lack of desperation. Those who stayed sober are the people who were genuinely desperate for change in their lives. And therefore they were more willing to take action.
Of course there are more pieces to the overall strategy then just dedication and full immersion into a program. But without this piece you would have a hard time gaining traction in early recovery.
Refusing to use your own ideas during the first year OR: how to get out of your own way in early recovery
This is an important concept.
I happen to think I am pretty smart so this concept was especially important for me in early recovery.
You see, if you think you know what is best for yourself in early recovery then you are setting yourself up for relapse. The key is to “get out of your own way” and let others make some important decisions for you.
How do you do this?
By simply letting go. You must surrender to win. This is surrender, when you get out of your own way and allow others to tell you what to do. But how can you go about implementing something like this?
I had to deliberately decide to do it. I had to make a conscious decision in early recovery that I was not going to use my own ideas, but would instead listen to other people first. I had to go out of my way (mentally) in order to live this way in early recovery.
It feels awkward to do this. It feels wrong, in fact. We are not usually comfortable with living according to other people’s ideas. We normally do not trust others as much as we trust ourselves. Because really, why (or how) would someone else have our best interests at heart? How could they care more about our lives and our well being than we do?
So when I started doing this myself in early recovery, it felt very strange. It was a temporary experiment. I told myself “Just go along with it for now, and start listening to what other people tell you to do, and if something doesn’t work out for you then you can just go back to taking your own advice again.
If you are religious then you might describe this as “God’s will” versus your own self will. In early recovery you need to make a decision that you are NOT going to do your own will for a while. You must make a conscious decision to turn off your own self will and deliberately live by God’s will. If you do not know what God’s will for you is then you must seek it out. Pray about it. Seek feedback from others. There is a saying around the tables that “God speaks to us through other people.” So there you go, seek feedback and advice in your recovery and you can avoid doing self will.
This idea may not sound very exciting to you. Trust me, it works very well though in early recovery. People who fail to use this concept get caught up in their own ideas and they relapse. Usually this happens in the form of self sabotage. They do not realize that they are leading themselves back into trouble using their own ideas. This is why it is so important to find a way to “get out of your own way” and start living according to someone else’s ideas in early recovery. Failing to do so generally results in relapse.
Massive action for big results (recovery is pass/fail!)
Unfortunately, recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction is entirely pass/fail. You either end up with a passing grade or you fail and relapse. There is no in between.
As such, there are really only two possible outcomes for someone who is trying to get clean and sober. They can succeed or they can relapse.
It takes most struggling addicts and alcoholics a few tries before they realize how this works. You cannot make a half hearted effort to stay sober and expect things to work out.
It is all or nothing in recovery. Either you remain sober or you relapse.
Therefore your efforts in recovery should reflect this simple but harsh truth. The problem is that most people do not realize the gravity of this situation until they have already tried and relapsed a few times.
When I was living in treatment (20 months) and then later working in a residential treatment facility (5+ years) I started to hear people’s stories and learned how many times they had been to rehab. I don’t believe I ever met someone who got sober after a single try. And I also noticed another interesting thing (purely subjective): most people who were successfully sober tried at least 3 times. I really believe that the average number of “tries” in sobriety is 3 times. I don’t have any hard data to back that up other than what I observed in the people around me in recovery. And yet it really seems common for it to be “third times a charm” with people attending rehab.
Now this does not mean that you should be discouraged (even if you are about to attend rehab for the first time ever). What it means is that you have an opportunity to learn something. Most people fail after their first try, and obviously this is because they are not trying hard enough. They are not putting forth enough action. They fail to take massive action.
If you are serious about recovery and you want to avoid relapse at all costs then there is a fairly straightforward path to this outcome. It is not so much a matter of what you do in recovery, it is a matter of consistency and commitment. You must go big to get the results you want.
What is an example of taking massive action? How about:
* Living in long term rehab for several months or years.
* Attending meetings every single day and really trying to learn from them.
* Having a sponsor in recovery and actively working with them on a regular basis.
* Doing everything that you possibly can to take positive action on a daily basis.
* Being heavily involved or completely immersed in any recovery program.
Depending on your situation, taking “massive action” may mean something different for you. There is no right or wrong path in recovery, but there is definitely a wrong intensity. Those who approach recovery casually do not do well.
This is an important strategy for long term recovery, but you can still start laying the foundation for this sort of growth in early recovery as well.
“Holistic” just means “whole.” So we are referring to the whole person in recovery. Not just the spiritual aspect of their life, but their entire being. This includes physical health. This includes relationships. This includes things like eating healthy, being in shape, quitting smoking.
This is about taking care of yourself.
This is about establishing a daily practice of taking care of yourself.
If I had to describe one thing that was the key to my overall success in recovery, I would say that it is the daily practice that I have established.
Everything is process. Recovery is process.
If you are not in the process of recovery (taking positive action, learning about yourself, challenging yourself to grow) then you are not really going to be stable in your recovery. Relapse is always a threat, especially if you get lazy and complacent.
So how do you avoid complacency? How do you avoid force yourself to keep making progress in life? Isn’t there a point in recovery where you can say that you are finished, when you have conquered recovery?
No. There is no finish line. If you think that you have reached it then you are in danger of relapse. This is why you must always be learning. This is why you must stay humble. This is why you must keep pushing yourself to get to that next level, to learn new things, to become a better person.
What is your daily practice? It is what you do every day. “Excellence is made up of habits.” (Paraphrasing Aristotle). It is not an event.
Everything is process.
I got sober in long term rehab. Lived with maybe 30 other guys over a period of 20 months. Nearly all of them relapsed since then. Only 2 others that I can pick out are still sober today. They are still sober because they have relentlessly followed process.
If you were to interview the people who are still sober after 10 years in order to see what is making them tick, you would find that they are engaged in process. These people have a daily practice. Certain things help them to stay clean and sober, and they do those things on a consistent basis. And they have been doing those things for 10 plus years now. It’s all process.
Me, I keep writing about recovery. And I keep exercising. And I pushing myself to find that next level, to uncover that next layer, to learn a little bit more about myself. This process has continued for over ten years now. It is a long time to engage in the process. But the only alternative is relapse.
So consider the idea of “holistic health.” That is, taking care of yourself in terms of:
But also include things like your social relationships, your financial health, your daily stress level, and so on. All of it is important. You need to be taking care of yourself, each and every day, on all of these different levels.
And that takes time.
It’s hard work.
It is a process. And therefore you must practice at it.
So, practice every day.
Hence, the “daily practice.”
What is the direction of recovery?
Either you are headed for relapse, or you are creating personal growth in your life. Those are the only two directions. Some people believe that there is a third direction where they just sort of coast, but later those people find out that they were on dangerous ground and headed for relapse. You don’t get to coast in recovery. You are either working on personal growth or you are working on a relapse.
There are a few people in this world that are die hard AA fanatics. They love the program and it has done them a world of good and they are proud to be in AA. Good for them. I have nothing against AA. But I also think it is important to realize that the fundamental principle behind AA is that of personal growth. The magic solution that leads to sobriety is something more fundamental than AA.
The AA program points to the solution, but it is not the solution itself. This is an important distinction. For a long time I believed that AA was the only solution and if I rejected AA then I would have to go drink again. After all, that is what I was told would happen in AA meetings–that if I were to leave AA that I would surely drink. This turned out to be false. But is not really the fault of AA–don’t blame them for it. They are really just trying to be helpful (the only way that they know how….AA is what finally worked for them, so it is no surprise that they try to scare you away from leaving).
The truth is that AA merely points to the solution, and there are actually many paths to recovery. For example, many people actually get sober through religious based programs as well. But to hear them tell it at an AA meeting, this is not even possible.
Personal growth is the key to recovery. If you can learn how to achieve personal growth in AA then my hat is off to you. But realize that the solution is not the recovery program itself, the solution is what the recovery program is pointing at. It is life lived well that is full of learning and growth. That is what you are striving for.
Accumulation through daily positive action
The final strategy that I want to leave you with is that of “accumulation.”
When you take positive action in early recovery, nothing happens at first.
This is because you have dug yourself into a hole. It takes a while in recovery before you start to see the benefits of recovery. You may not realize the good stuff at all for a while, and then one day you will look back and realize that things are suddenly a lot better than they used to be.
It takes time. It takes a long time in some cases. But is more than worth it, because all of the positive action that you take in recovery starts to accumulate over time.
In active alcoholism, you were constantly losing ground. It was always a struggle. You would take two steps forward and then take three steps back. The disease sabotaged you at every turn.
In recovery, the opposite happens. This is because you are no longer sabotaging yourself. Now when you make gains in your life you get to build on your success. Things get better and better. This is the gift of recovery. It is a gift that ties of all of these top strategies together.